Thunder clapped as lightning danced across the sky. Heavy drops of rain screamed while falling from the heavens. The ruins of the abandoned cathedral reached towards the sky as if trying to climb back to its rightful place. From across the street, Cass watched the broken wooden door beat against the stone wall. Its thudding impact repeatedly forced by the wind.
Her grandmother awaited her inside. Cass found a letter on her front door an hour before. The invitation to a tea party written in her grandmother’s jagged script. The words, “Your mother and baby brother are waiting for you,” burned in her mind’s eye.
The rain-soaked hood of her jacket covered her face in shadow while a war raged inside her mind. Fear prickled up her spine and neck crossing paths with the rain that rolled down. Need and purpose warmed her fighting back the goosebumps caused by the biting wind. Her stomach rolled with sickness and dread.
She once looked up to her grandmother. She held dear to fond memories with the older woman. Times when she listened with rapt attention to stories of the world before the collapse. When great nations ruled and people worshipped the most beautiful among them. The promise to never allow harm to befall Cass. She still wore the ring her grandmother had lovingly passed to her that final day before they took her to the old hospital. Since then so much changed in her grandmother, but the memories and love remained in Cass.
She felt her chest grow heavy thinking of those long past days. Now everything was different. If she refused to go to the tea party, her mother would undoubtedly face terrors beyond imagining. If she joined them, then she and her mother would face her grandmother together. Only one of those held the possibility of a peaceful outcome. Cass disdained gambling but time ran out, the bell tolled, and it was time to toss the dice.
She clenched her fist, the invitation in her hand crumpling. Letting out a deep breath, she dropped the paper onto the rainy street and stepped forward. With each step, she grew surer. The shaking in her hands continued despite her mental orders to the contrary. Darkness lay beyond the broken door and with one final deep breath, she entered and let the shadows swallow her.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the dark room as she stepped through the entry foyer, tiptoeing over ruble that littered the floor. The sanctuary opened before her, waterfalls of rain spotted across the large room. Flashes of lightning provided temporary light allowing her to take mental snapshots of the scene as she approached. Her stomach tangling into tighter knots and the chill of the room growing deeper with every step.
A small wooden table sat at the foot of the altar. Her mother tied to the chair on the left, her mouth gagged, eyes red and full of fear. Lines of drying blood trailed down the side of her face. A baby doll hung suspended and tied to the chair on the right. Its face and head marked with her grandmother’s jagged script. She made out the word “Die,” written in big red letters but the rest were too jumbled together. Lit candles slowly melted dripping wax to the table’s surface. A blue and white teapot sat at the center. Chipped and broken teacups and saucer plates haphazardly placed before the four chairs. At the head of the table stood her grandmother. The crucifix loomed behind her looking down on them. She leaned forward, palms resting on the chair back in front of her. The shredded white sleeves of her hospital gown flowed down to the floor. Her stringy gray hair hung limply framing a wide smile that stretched her face. Her darting eyes finally came to a stop and rested on Cass. Frosted breath, like smoke curled from her nose and lips.
“Welcome Cass,” Her grandmother’s thinned voice rang out in a sing-song tone. “I am so glad that you came.” In a flash, she was at her daughter’s side. Gripping Cass’s mother’s face in one hand she squeezed her daughter’s cheeks. “Your mother was so worried that you wouldn’t make it”. The twisted smile and glint in her eyes flashed with the lightning. “Please have a seat.” She said gesturing to the empty chair before Cass.
Cass stood frozen, the shock of the scene rooting her to the floor. With a flick of a wrist, a knife appeared in her grandmother’s hand. She pressed the sharp blade to her daughter’s throat. Her face a hair’s breadth away from her daughter’s. The curling frost of her breath creating a fog between the two women. Cass’s mother squeezed her eyes shut. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks as she let out muffled whimpers. Cass’s heart leaped to her throat. Again she ordered, “Have a seat, Cass.” Cass robotically pulled the chair from the table and sat, her eyes never breaking contact with her mother.
Instantly, her grandmother’s mood changed from murderous to lighthearted. A grin split her face. Spinning the knife in her hand she pointed the blade at Cass. “Do you want some tea? I brewed it especially for you. I know it’s your favorite.” Without waiting her grandmother lifted the teapot. Metallic rattling sounded from within and hundreds of small pellets flowed out as she poured them into Cass’s teacup. She recognized the pellets as the beads that made up a shotgun shell. “Go on, drink up. Don’t be shy.” Her grandmother encouraged.
Careful to keep her eyes on her grandmother, Cass slowly reached for the cup bringing it to her lips. “It’s good,” she lied sparing a glance to her mom. Her mother’s head hung low small sobs rocking her body. Cass’s throat clenched and tears began forming in her eyes. Thunder rolled in the distance, and the roar of the waterfalls seemed muted as her full attention focused on the old woman before her. She returned the cup to the saucer, careful to keep her hands around the porcelain ware. “What do you want?” She asked praying that her voice wouldn’t waver. She needed to appear fearless.
“Want?” Her grandmother tilted her head and blinked shocked by the question. “I want what I’ve always wanted. To go home with my daughter.” Her face quickly shifted to a scowl. "But now she has that new baby,” she spat. In another flash, she was on the other side of the table knife held to the neck of the doll. “This little rat has ruined it all. You killed my daughter.” Her voice rising to a full scream. Eyes glinting with hate and teeth gnarled. She pressed the knife to the doll's cheeks. “Stop crying!” She yelled at the doll. “I said stop!” She backhanded the toy knocking it from the ropes and leaving it dangling by its foot. Cass flinched back at the sudden outburst.
Her grandmother straightened. A smirk of satisfaction forming on her lips. “Grandma,” Cass whispered fighting back the tears that threatened to spill over. “Why are we here?”
Another look of confusion crossed her grandmother’s face. “Because we are closer to God.” She answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. With more grace than Cass expected her grandmother leaped onto the table. Her bare feet carrying her in a circle. Her hands folded behind her back dragging the shredded sleeves behind her. She kicked the cup and saucer in front of the doll’s chair sending the dishware flying into the darkness. The sound of shattering faintly echoed as they crashed onto the floor. She resumed her circling march. Each heavy footfall caused the table and porcelain to rattle. Cass tried to discretely dry her sweaty palms. The sound of her heartbeat rivaled the thunder rumbling above.
“It was so sad the day your mother died. I remember it well.” Cass and her mother looked at each other the eyebrows of both women furrowed in confusion. “She screamed and screamed as that baby ripped its way out of her. The little monster stealing her from me,” she seethed. “But,” she stopped walking standing in front of Cass’s mom. Squatting down she stroked her daughter’s tear-stained cheek with the knife blade, “I will soon join you in heaven dear. Don’t worry, mommy is coming.”
“No, no. Grandma, I need you to look at me,” Cass said slowly trying to keep her voice calm. “Mom is alive. She is here with us. That’s her.”
“You think I don’t know that?” She raged. Pressing the knife to her daughter’s throat again, “She is alive in heaven and we have to join her. She told me to come home to her. She said I have to bring us all to salvation.”
Cass felt fear envelope her. The sharp tingles raging up and down her spine like icicles. The hairs on her neck, arms, and head felt as if they stood on end. What do I do? How do I get us out of here? I’ve got to talk her down. Distract her.
Slowly, Cass stood, “Grandma, you don’t have to do this. We can all live together here. We don’t have to go to heaven yet.” Her grandmother’s attention shifted to her. Wild, wide eyes focused on her like a hawk. “You listen to me,” her grandmother began as she stood turning towards Cass. “I am doing this for all of us. I will take on your sins and deliver us all to heaven.”
Abruptly, her grandmother’s gaze shifted back to the doll still dangling by its tangled-up foot. “Shut up!” Her grandmother bellowed. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Without warning she grabbed the teapot throwing it on the table. The porcelain pieces shattered around them releasing a pistol. In a single smooth motion, her grandmother scooped it up and fired three successive shots into the doll.
Without thinking, Cass dove for her grandmother. Her tackle knocked the old woman to the ground crashing hard on her side but leaving Cass still atop the table. Adrenaline, fueled her as she leaped after her grandmother. She kicked the gun out of her hand sending it spiraling away.
Piercing white-hot pain flamed up her leg. Her grandmother’s knife stuck out of her left thigh. Gritting her teeth she braced herself and tried to pull it out. The pain sent shockwaves of nausea through her body. Her hands quivered and she fell to her knees. White light flashed in her eyes as the knife was brutally ripped from her leg. Her grandmother stood above her peering down. Her smile wide and mocking. The knife bloody and sinister looked her in the eyes hungry for more.
Breathing heavy, Cass lunged for the knife. The blade sliced past her hands and arms diving headlong into her right side. Stunned, Cass looked down at the blade buried into her side. Blood spread across her shirt mixing with the rainwater. Her hands tangled in the flowing shredded sleeves of her grandmother’s hospital gown fought to find freedom. Her fingers clutched the blade as her grandmother ripped it out of her side. Slick with blood the knife began to slip. Tightening her grip and digging the razor edge into her palms she twisted the knife out of the other woman’s hand. Spinning away she flung it to the side. Pain like fire raced up her side causing her to cry out. In less than a heartbeat, her grandmother tackled her onto the steps of the altar. The eyes of the crucifix watched the two women wrestling below it. Weakened by her wounds, Cass struggled to fight the older woman.
Bringing her foot up, she managed to get it under her grandmother’s hip kicking the crazed woman off of her. Scrambling backward a trail of blood marked her hand-falls. A glint of metal caught the corner of Cass’s eye. The gun lay mere feet from her. Glancing back, she saw her grandmother’s eyes full of fury and absent of the love they once possessed. Cass’s eyes burned with tears and a lump formed in her throat.
Time seemed to stretch as her grandmother, moved towards the gun. In unison, both women dived for the weapon their bloodied hands slipping and knocking it farther into the shadows. Growling, her grandmother grabbed Cass by her hair slamming her head into the concrete flooring over and over and over again. The old woman leaped off her granddaughter running back to the table and the knife that lay near it never looking back.
Blood flowed from her head pooling around Cass. Her head pounded. Each pelt feeling sharp and crushing. High pitched ringing filled her ears and the floors and walls spun in different directions. Fire tore through her leg and her hands burning her with every breath. Gasping she reached out. The gun lay just beyond her reach, the weapon swaying and dancing with the rocking of the floor. Groaning she pushed herself forward with her right leg. The gun continued to dance around her. Twisting and dodging from her attempts at snatching it. Black edges started to creep into her vision. Gritting her teeth she reached out once more. She grasped the cold weapon swinging it around in time to see her Grandmother racing towards her bound and panicking mother. The knife held high above her head in both hands. Thunder and lightning sprang from the pistol. Its metal raindrop arcing through the air screaming as it flew into her grandmother’s back penetrating her spine. The old woman stumbled and fell, the momentum carrying her plunging the dagger into her daughter’s chest.
Cass’s cries drowned in the storm. The dark edges of her vision growing closer. The floor violently rocked back and forth turning into walls. Dizziness and pain paralyzing her. “Mom!” She sobbed hoarsely. “Mom answer me!” Thunder echoed and lightning flashed in the skies above. Her vision shrinking to a pinprick of light. Unconsciousness loomed threatened to overwhelm her. “No, no I’m sorry, mom.” She whispered. Reaching her hand out she knocked over a teacup. Half of it in pieces, broken and scattered across the ground. Her final thoughts leaped across warm memories with her grandmother and then finally drifted back to the invitation that she never wished she’d received. Above them, the crucifix looked down at the blood covering the altar.
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